Owls Nest, Jobs Grow In West as High Tech Supplements Forestry

``JOBS Versus Owls'' - it's shorthand for the emotional fight in the Pacific Northwest over endangered species. Yet in Oregon, where courts slapped controversial limits on the logging industry, there is surprising news: The economy is thriving.

Oregon's unemployment rate - 5 percent - is the lowest in 25 years. New jobs, many of them high tech, are being created here at a rate of more than 3 percent a year.

Times are still tough in some timber towns. But unlike the ``timber bust'' that hammered the state's economy during the early 1980s, this time the sharp drop in timber harvests, caused by the northern spotted owl, had an economic cushion.

Some 15,000 wood-products jobs were lost over the past few years. But federal aid is beginning to help with worker retraining and community development. And the supply of logs is expected to pick up.

A key factor in this region's turnaround is the rapid creation of jobs in other industries. High-tech jobs alone are expected to surpass timber-based employment here within three years as Intel and other major firms build new plants or expand existing ones.

Portland-based U.S. Bancorp reports: ``In spite of drought, defense cutbacks, aerospace contractions, grasshoppers, and fiscal battles, the region continues to grow and in many areas prosper.'' An important factor in this economic growth is what University of Oregon economist Ed Whitelaw calls the ``second paycheck'' enjoyed by people who live here.

``The `second paycheck' is quality of life,'' Professor Whitelaw told a congressional hearing in Salt Lake City earlier this year. Living is so attractive in this region that companies can pay workers as much as 15 percent less than they might have to pay elsewhere to attract top-notch people.

WHITELAW says this second paycheck consists of ``forested mountains, clean streams, a low probability of getting mugged, scenic vistas, and so on.''

As for the timber industry, which draws much of its supply from national forests in the West, a new forecast by the United States Forest Service offers some encouragement. Researchers anticipate that supplies of timber will bottom out around the mid-1990s, followed by a slow but steady increase over the next half-century.

``This assumes that national forests are able to get timber consistent with President Clinton's plan'' for recovery of the spotted owl, says Richard Haynes, a federal forest researcher at the Pacific Northwest Research Station.

It also assumes the elimination of below-cost timber sales (criticized by the National Taxpayers Union as well as environmental groups) and an end to Forest Service road-building in roadless areas.

The administration's forest plan for the region came after years of court injunctions blocking timber harvesting in spotted owl habitat areas and is itself under legal attack. It would provide far fewer logs than were made available during the mid-1980s when local politicians and federal agencies under Republican administrations fought increased environmental protection.

In some parts of timber country, there has been good news lately. Butte Falls and Prospect, two small towns in southern Oregon, recently learned they'd get $100,000 each through the Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative, which is part of Mr. Clinton's forest plan. The money will be used through the new AmeriCorps national service program to improve a community hall, library, and fire station while providing salaried work and education grants for 40 young people.

In nearby Ashland, seven displaced timber workers last week began earning $9 an hour as part of a six-month training program in ecosystem management. And in Toledo, Ore., a tiny coast al town that suffered economic battering through the 1980s, Georgia-Pacific this week announced a $100 million modernization to its container-board mill there. That is welcome news for a town that had seen many of its businesses boarded up.

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